“Satan is real, not symbolic,” Pastor Adam Söderberg told worshippers at South Church on a morning when the -2°F windchill temperature no doubt kept some away from the cozy, well-lit Meeting House. Thoughts of raging hellfire on such a cold day might not have had the intended effect on congregants who filled about 20% of the room.
South Congregational Church, also known as the Second Church of Christ in Hartford, originated in 1670 when members split from what is now Center Church. They pride themselves on maintaining tradition, but have made steps to take themselves into this century. They have a web presence, which includes social media and embedded videos of past sermons on their website, which is attractive and easy to navigate. As someone who spends too much time on poorly designed sites (primarily for restaurants) trying to ascertain basic pieces of information, like hours of operation, this online accessibility is very appreciated. Grace Academy, a fairly new middle school for girls with an enrollment around sixty, is located within the South Church compound, which can be a bit of a maze for visitors. You do not enter the church through the front door, but through the side or the back, adjacent to the parking lots. There are signs outside guiding visitors; once inside, it’s every woman for herself. Looking lost did not get me any help, though once I asked a woman where the service was, she guided me along.
There was a definite New England vibe to the place. A few people said hello, but most just went about their business, neither hostile nor especially friendly. Personally, I am fine with being ignored (except for in situations when attention is expected, like when trying to order at a restaurant) but some people take offense to this cultural difference. The greeter handed me the order of service and may or may not have given me an actual greeting, though I did receive two or three once inside and seated during the minutes before the service got underway.
Truth be told, had I merely wandered in to this service without doing any prior research, I would have left with the warm fuzzies. Aside from the talk of satan’s realness, it was uplifting.
The service, one day before Martin Luther King Day, included playing the civil rights leader’s most famous speech. Pastor Adam said, “we have a checkered past in our nation when it comes to the races,” and spoke of the great strides that have been made, giving gratitude for having a “black president,” regardless of political persuasion. He spoke of how “silence is not golden, it’s forgetting,” tying our need to remember history to the reading from Deuteronomy 4:9-14. The Call to Prayer (Psalm 10) praised God for “bring[ing] justice to the orphans and the oppressed.”
Even the musical selections, performed by professional vocalists, gave lip service to social justice. The choir sang a beautiful and moving rendition of We Shall Overcome. This was the only time during the service that I saw congregants turn around and try to get a glimpse of the musicians, though the choir was equally skilled when singing the other pieces. It’s more common for the soul to get sucked out of this spiritual, so I think the movement was a reflection of the shock that the song was lovely. “They’ll Know We Are Christians,” a hymn about dignity and unity, was among other musical selections.
On the way out, Pastor Adam dispensed hugs to church members; visitors received handshakes. As I wandered about the halls after, a man directed me into the coffee hour, where I could have given myself instant diabetes if I chose to. The fudge brownies are highly recommended. There were all kinds of snacks, coffee, and what was either cider or iced tea. After grabbing some junk food, nobody tried to engage me in conversation, other than a friend who caught up with me.
If this were the entire story, South Church would receive a rave review.
While they scored well for racial equity, there was very little actual diversity. Of the approximately forty worshippers — based on appearance alone — 38 were white. The majority were senior citizens.
Neither of those facts is an anomaly for churches, which tend to be racially segregated.
South Church promotes equity and unity, but apparently only as far as race is concerned. This church participates in the Family Institute of Connecticut’s activities. FIC is an organization which considers Plan B to be an abortifacient, even though the American Medical Association regards it as a contraceptive since the pills do nothing if conception has already occurred. FIC opposes transgender rights, including the ability for transgendered individuals to be teachers. Needless to say, FIC actively works against unity and equality for homosexuals. A friend within the church says that anti-homosexual remarks have made their way into sermons.
Equality? Unity? Justice for the Oppressed?
GOOD: Talented choir, engaging Pastor, beautiful worship space
NOT GOOD: Cafeteria-style approach to equality issues.
South Church is located at 277 Main Street. They have ample off-street parking and are on a major bus route.